Fresh Spaces, Familiar Faces:
Country Westerns Saddle Up in East Nashville
Familiar faces abound for Atlanta folks visiting Nashville. Drop by Joey Plunket’s spot for light bites and hard liquor, Duke’s, and you’ll not just see the former Gentleman Jesse and The Weight member but also longtime Black Lips tour manager Matt Williams – if Williams isn’t on the road with his other boss, Margo Price. For more than a delicious sandwich, try Babo, a Korean restaurant Plunket helped start with Tim Song, an Atlanta photographer and restauranteur (Gaja, Boggs Social & Supply).
Of course, folks in Atlanta and Athens view Plunket (billed as Joseph Plunket in most projects) as more than a businessman. To them, he’s a rock ‘n’ roller with a clear affection for such country music greats as George Jones and Tom T. Hall. In recent years, old friends and new listeners have associated him with twangy three-piece Country Westerns.
The trio teams Plunket and his guitar with drummer and former Silver Jew Brian Kotzur and bassist Sabrina Rush from the Louisville band State Champion. They’ve played around Georgia a few times, and a recently finished album (penciled in for a May 1st release on Fat Possum) should make Country Westerns part of Plunket’s public image beyond East Nashville and the East Atlanta Village.
Did you start the band after Duke’s got going, and was it hard to balance being a business owner and getting back into music?
“Yeah, I took like two years off of really playing out after we opened the place. Then me and Brian Kotzur the drummer started fooling around in his garage for about a year before we played a show. Kind of getting the muscle memory back of playing, you know.”
Jesse (Smith of Gentleman Jesse and the Carbonas) seemed to take a few years off from playing out a lot as he helped get Kimball House off the ground. I guess that’s a normal part of the whole process for musicians opening restaurants or bars.
“I was playing bass for Jesse, and the last show I played with him was in Spain. He was like, ‘I’m opening a restaurant. I’ll see you guys in a couple of years.’”
Is the name Country Westerns tongue-in-cheek because your sound doesn’t exactly line up with what most tourists hear in Nashville?
“Yeah, I think in a way it was like a bad joke. Especially people in Atlanta know that I’ve played in country bands for years. It was part joke and part, ‘Who says we’re not country?’ We sound like country to me. And part of it was not to be asked to play downtown or weird honky-tonk festivals. We put a scarlet letter on ourselves from the beginning, and people in Nashville were like, ‘You guys are idiots.’”
I’d imagine you’ve still got a lot of places to play there and plenty of punk, garage and country bands to play with.
“There’s a lot of great clubs and party spots. Our old label and good friends Soft Junk put on a lot of really cool shows, and there’s always great bands in town.
“It’s just Nashville is a very unique music town. It’s different from Atlanta or Athens where it’s more band oriented. Here it’s a lot more networking and people playing with a lot of different other people. We’re not opposed to that, but I have to be in a band with the same people. I’m not good at switching partners musically.”
And you know Athens and Atlanta well.
“I grew up just outside of Atlanta, and I lived in Athens for a few years and New York.”
What drew you to Nashville? Was it music?
“My ex-wife (country singer Nikki Lane), but I stuck it out. I like it.”
It’s probably a good place to start a punk bar, for one thing.
“Oh yeah, that stuff’s good and great. The whole town’s been really supportive of the businesses we’ve done.”
It seems like that stretch of East Nashville has grown up around Duke’s in a way.
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood this whole time, and there’s definitely a lot more hustle and bustle. Used to be you couldn’t get anything to eat after 9 o’ clock around here.”
Did it seem like an area that’d soon take off when you found a home for Duke’s?
“We looked all over. We just kind of lucked into that specific spot. It kind of found us, in a way. No one else was looking at it for a bar. Most of the bars around here are bigger, but we kind of wanted a little shotgun place.”
Going back to the Country Westerns, I’m guessing connections made over the years playing with The Weight and Gentleman Jesse made it simple enough to get back out on the road and be in contact with record labels.
“It took a while to get back into it after not playing for a few years. We are kind of under the radar here, but luckily, we got really good shows in Atlanta, New York, Chicago and Detroit. Everything’s so saturated here. I love the people here and the music scene’s cool, but it’s almost easier to get noticed out of town than in Nashville.”
There’s just so much going on…
“Not in a bad way, but it’s a small town where everybody’s doing the same thing.”
Have you been in bands since you were a teenager, like I’d assume? I just know everything since The Weight.
“The Weight changed lineups a lot, but basically I started doing stuff under that name when I was 19. We made like five records, maybe one of which is still in print. I kept going with that for a long time.”
Wasn’t that usually a larger ensemble, versus the power trio lineup of the Country Westerns?
“We would have five or six people, yeah. I had a band here called the JP5 that played Atlanta a few times. There were a lot of years when I didn’t front my own band. I just played bass with Jesse and for King Tuff and a couple of other bands.”
I forgot you played with King Tuff around the time that first album (Was Dead) became huge.
“Wes (Duvall) and I and Bryce (Franich) put out that first record on Colonel Records years ago. We did the touring band for a few years until Kyle moved out to LA.”
There’s at least one Country Westerns 7-inch, right?
“We’ve put out two singles on Soft Junk Records, but what’ll be out soon will be the first full-length.”
I know one of the singles has a cover that shows someone coming out of Robert’s Western World in an inflatable goldfish suit. What’s even happening in that photo?
“That’s a weird picture I just snapped walking down the street one day on Broadway. I think it was some sort of promotional figure dressed up in a whale suit. It was an odd scene to see.”
Even on that stretch it was an odd scene. The chicken suit person is on the other side of the road, and you don’t even notice them. Do people ask about that picture? It is sort eye-catching and odd.
“Yeah, I don’t think we have any more of those. They’re out in the world now.”
It’s very Nashville because it’s obviously Robert’s, but you have the goldfish or whale or whatever that’s just beyond the norm for Broadway.
“It’s a magic thing that happened to me when I actually saw it.”
It seems like you guys are touring a lot. Are you getting into album promotion mode?
“We’re playing a good bit out of town. We’re not doing any long stretches. The record’s supposed to be out May 1, so we’re getting our sea legs and getting back in training to tour the record.”
Do you like those little tours where you spend a long weekend in New York or a few days in the Midwest instead of committing to multiple weeks away from home?
“We have work and families and stuff, but we’re definitely going to try to play out of town as much as possible. The reason we do this band is to get out of town. Otherwise, we’re stuck here.”
As far as the country influence on your music, did you grow up on country?
“By my late teens, I was pretty obsessed with country music. I always played in bands with steel in it and stuff like that. I love country music, but Nashville will kind of beat it out of you sometimes. You need a little variety.”
You’ve left Nashville not just for shows but to record your next album.
“Yeah, we recorded up in New York with Matt Sweeney. All the studio people were laughing at us because we live in a town where you can throw a rock and hit a studio, but we felt like going up there. We liked getting out of the same headspace, and we really wanted to work with Matt. He kind of resurrected our band. We were just going in circles.
“We were supposed to go on the road with David Berman (of Silver Jews) and Purple Mountain. Obviously, we were super looking forward to that. David passed away, so we were just spinning our wheels. Matt Sweeney was really the one to say I’m into this, so I’m taking you guys to New York to make a record.”